Unlike the J. League in the early 1990s, the Japan Professional Basketball League will not be an immediate success story when it tips off in the fall of 2016.
The stars were aligned for the J. League to shine brightly, including the obvious appetite for another team sport to vie with the stagnant Nippon Professional Baseball for public interest.
There are deep-rooted problems that plague Japanese basketball. And it’s unrealistic to believe that everything will neatly fall into place in 14 months.
There are too many teams (35 combined clubs competed in the NBL and bj-league during the 2014-15 season; several of them have been dealing with severe financial problems; others have nearly folded, including the NBL’s Tsukuba Robots), and too many “home” venues.
On the other hand, there’s not enough coverage of basketball in the vernacular dailies and sports newspapers. It can’t be described as a major focal point of news coverage. It barely gets any ink (or online coverage) most days of the calendar year. And there isn’t a rich tradition of major TV coverage over the past several decades.
As a result, the general public has a very limited knowledge about the men who are employed to play the game in this country. Indeed, for the nearly 130 million residents of Japan, very few can rattle off the names of even 10 players in the two leagues.
For the JPBL, what kind of marketing campaign can be built around a collection of players who are not marquee names?
Compounding the problem is this: Japan’s men have failed to qualify for the Olympics since 1976. Which means the sport is often an afterthought to a large percentage of the population.
In time, fan favorites will emerge in the JPBL. But there’s no magic formula to raise the sport’s profile. It will take hard work, strategic planning and savvy marketing — and a dose of good luck, the rise of stars who’ll captivate the public and attract media coverage.
It remains to be seen who will emerge as the key movers and shakers alongside Saburo Kawabuchi, the Japan 2024 Task Force co-chairman and new Japan Basketball Association president.
The good news, though, is that Kawabuchi led the J.League in its infancy and has experience running the Japan Football Association. For Kawabuchi, both experiences will be vital to draw upon.
There will be major setbacks and a rough road ahead for the sport, but forcing the independent bj-league and the NBL and NBDL, both backed by the JBA, to combine forces was a necessary step. Credit FIBA, the sport’s global governing body, for having the guts to do this. It applied the pressure and handed Japan’s hoop leaders a necessary dose of reality and humiliation.
If FIBA hadn’t meted out a global suspension to the JBA last November, there’s no way the JPBL would’ve been on track for its launch in Ocober 2016. The status quo would’ve remained in place for several years — maybe decades.
Too many teams have little (or no) stability in the coaching ranks, either. This has had, and will continue to have, a profound impact on a team’s chances of building longterm success and developing players as well.
Exhibit A: For the 2015-16 campaign, 14 of 22 bj-league teams — plus the first-year expansion clubs, Hiroshima Lightning and Kanazawa Samuraiz — will have new bench bosses in their first season at the helm. This reflects poorly on those calling the shots.
Top-division assignment: It’s just days away from the task force’s announcement of 10 of the planned 12-16 teams for the top division. The first 10 are expected to be revealed by July 30, and then the task force plans to reveal the rest of the teams to fill the spots in August.
Another 16-24 teams are slated to compete in the second division of this promotion-relegation system, with the rest set to be lumped together in the third flight.
Recognizing that a franchise’s past success, home region, available venues and economic well-being are all factors that have been analyzed by the task force, I believe the following NBL clubs are likely entrants into the top division: defending champion Aisin SeaHorses, Hitachi Sunrockers, Link Tochigi Brex, Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins, Toshiba Brave Thunders and Toyota Alvark.
By the way, the Chiba Jets should be assigned to the top division, too. Hiring Zeljko Pavlicevic, a former Japan national team bench boss, as their new coach this summer, the Jets have a world-renown mentor with an impressive track record of success. Having Pavlicevic’s team in the top division will raise the bar for coaching in the league.
A case can also be made to have the Levanga Hokkaido, who have had a history of cash woes, in the top flight to give the new league a presence on Japan’s northernmost island.
So that’s eight teams from the NBL, I submit.
From the bj-league, I make the case for the Akita Northern Happinets (title runnerup in 2013-14 and 2014-15), reigning champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (also with three titles on their bj-league resume), Niigata Albirex BB, Osaka Evessa (the circuit’s original dynasty team; winners of three straight titles in 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08), Ryukyu Golden Kings (three-time champions) and Sendai 89ers.
That gives us 14 teams.
A few more bj-league squads warrant serious consideration: Kyoto Hannaryz, Shiga Lakestars and Toyama Grouses, all perennial playoff participants in recent years. (But I wouldn’t expect the task force to pick more than two of ’em.)
Are the cash-strapped Yokohama B-Corsairs capable of competing in the top division?
If so, will Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium be regularly available to host their games?
The NBL’s Hiroshima Dragonflies are entering their second season, and an argument could be made that a city the size of Hiroshima (population: 1.1 million) ought to have a top-flight squad, too.
Kyushu doesn’t have a team with the popularity or past success to make the cut for the first division. The NBL’s Kumamoto Volters went 6-48 last season, while the bj-league’s Rizing Fukuoka were 13-39, and the Oita HeatDevils were 18-34 and are now dubbed the Oita Ehime HeatDevils after their company relocated to Shikoku island.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.